My First Christmas in California by Evelyne Holingue
“You’ve got to see something,” my husband said, right after picking our eleven-month-old daughter and me up at the San Francisco airport.
We had left Paris on December 22, more than twenty hours ago, and I wondered what could a Parisian have never seen that couldn’t wait until the next day. But an irresistible hint of excitement in my husband’s voice triggered my curiosity.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked.
“Get ready,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
We drove through Palo Alto for another half hour. Although there were almost no cars and absolutely no one in the streets, every house was lit up with tiny white bulbs that looked like icicles. Plastic Santa Clauses and snowmen, reindeer and sleighs made out of wire stood in almost every front yard. Many tree trunks were wrapped with electric garlands, which were also lit up. I had never been to Disneyland, but I imagined that it looked like that. Magical.
My sister had taken me to the Champs-Elysées the night before my departure. Paris was dressed up for the holidays, and as my sister drove down the glamorous avenue, I took in the trees covered with artificial snow and the strings of lights draped above the Arc de Triomphe.
The decorated and illuminated houses on Emerson, University, and most streets in Palo Alto offered a new version of the holiday season. Nowhere in France in 1990, could you see so many lights, so many decorations, not even in Paris. And no French person would have put on such a show in her own front yard. Here in California the over-the-top attitude outshone the restrained French one. That night, under the California starred sky, I fell for the American exuberant nature, and yet in the back of my head the French nagging voice of reason tsks tsks its tongue. Isn’t a little too much?
In the center of our new living room, a Christmas tree spread its branches.
“It was the smallest one,” my husband said.
“Are you kidding? It’s huge!”
“I’m telling you, it’s small. And I was lucky: I got the last one at Safeway. It’s like a mini Auchan,” he said when I asked what Safeway was. “The guy at the store took pity on me and sold me the tree for a few dollars.”
Like any Parisian, my husband hadn’t thought of a Christmas tree before he saw them vanishing from parking lots like French baguettes fly from the bakers’ racks at dinner time. In France, many people get their Christmas tree at the last minute, often decorating before the messe de minuit or midnight mass. Compared to the French sapins de Noël, our first American Christmas tree was a giant. Some in France are small enough to be carried home without a car. Yet from an American perspective, our tree was the runt of the litter and the smallest we would ever get.
My husband switched the string of lights on. The tree came alive under my eyes, but without glimmering balls and a star at the top it looked bare, and the thought of spending, for the first time ever, Christmas away from my family filled me with emotions I had never experienced either. In a confuse way I knew that I was missing France as much as the people I knew there. I had seen very little of California, but the sense of displacement was palpable.
On Christmas Eve I tucked the gifts, which our parents had slid into my suitcase, in our shoes set under the tree as in France. Only the huge, colorful plastic house that my husband bought at Toys “R” us didn’t fit inside our little girl’s pair of baby shoes.
When she discovered the house on Christmas Day, she clapped her hands and crawled inside. She opened and closed the shutters of the two windows before shutting them for good. Had she already understood that she would need to carve out her own space between two immigrant parents? This first Christmas gift would, for years, remain her favorite hideout.
Away from our friends and family, this first American Christmas was low key in comparison to the American extravaganza around us. Our search for a small turkey, a French Christmas tradition, was a challenge. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have embarked on such a quest. In a country that craves big, we could only fail. I threw the leftover turkey away after a week of eating it cold with mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, and pickles that had nothing to do with French cornichons. On that first Christmas we also searched for marrons, French chestnuts that we cook and serve around the turkey.
“It should do,” my husband said when he discovered a can of Chinese water chestnuts. It did, even though they had absolutely nothing in common with French chestnuts.
Despite our personal quiet Christmas, the overall effervescence proved to me that Americans took the holiday season even more seriously than the French cherish their summer paid vacation.
All over town, women wore red sweatshirts, sometimes embroidered with reindeer and snowflakes. They also pinned candy cane brooches on their lapels while others – men included – wore Santa Claus hats. Some people attached bells to the pompon. Christmas carols played everywhere. And everyone wished everyone Happy Holidays. Even the Palo Alto police officers did the same.
I suddenly understood what the immigration officer said after he handed me back my passport. His voice calling after me had stopped me in my tracks. I turned and he said, “Happy Holidays!” My baby girl waved cheerfully her small chubby hand, while I shrugged hesitantly one shoulder.
We weren’t going on a holiday but were on our way to our new American life.
About the author:
I was born in France and grew up in Normandy. After ten years in Paris I moved to the USA. In 1990 a few days before Christmas me and my eleven-month-old daughter left Paris for San Francisco to join my husband/father. My family has lived on both coasts of the country in several different locations. I am the author of two novels for children. Trapped in Paris was published in 2012 and Chronicles From Chateau Moines in 2014. You can find more about me, my writing and my life between two languages and cultures from my website/blog evelyneholingue.com